Posted in 20th century America, Christianity, Civil Rights, conservative politics, gender studies, Ku Klux Klan, marginalization, racism, religion

Suburban Warriors: The Origins of the New American Right

McGirr, Lisa. Suburban Warriors: The Origins of the New American Right. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2001.

Lisa McGirr’s book, Suburban Warriors: The Origins of the New American Right, is an interesting study of the grassroots conservatism that developed in Orange County, California beginning in the late 1950s.  The stories are both enlightening and disturbing as McGirr traces how this group learned to shift the conservative movement away from radical right-wing organizations like the Ku Klux Klan and the John Birch Society to develop high levels of respectability for themselves—enough to successfully elect Ronald Regan to the Presidency in 1980.  The big turning point for these conservatives was Barry Goldwater’s 1964 defeat.  He lost support for opposing the 1964 Civil Rights’ Act and Social Security.  Another contributing factor was his campaign’s association with the John Birch Society.  Republican moderates were alarmed by Goldwater’s nomination acceptance speech where he stated, “Extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice!”[1]  Following this defeat, but still concerned with “law and order” and “morality,” conservatives shed their extremist language to attract a more mainstream audience.[2]  The 1966 gubernatorial campaign for Reagan was their first real victory.

McGirr’s overriding question considers “how conservative political ideology, often considered an antimodern worldview, attracted a large number of people in the most technologically advanced and economically vibrant of American locales.”[3]  She shows that the Orange County  conservative movement embraced some aspects of modernity while rejecting others.  Right-wing evangelical Protestantism offered meaning through community and morality, and helped to ease fears of looming social upheaval (Communism, integration, birth control and abortion, to name a few).  It also embraced consumerism and entrepreneurial endeavors, which were key aspects of the technological economy that flourished in the region since the end of World War II.

McGirr’s resources included newspaper articles, interviews, sermons, magazines, poitical newsletters, McGuffey Readers, court proceedings transcripts, presidential election statistics, letters, ACLU papers, and the papers of Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, Barry Goldwater, and other politicians discussed in the book.

This book connects with others on this site in a number of ways.  For example, Estrid Kielsmeier, a woman in the suburbs who ran coffee klatches to gather support for Barry Goldwater’s election, is an example of an ordinary woman who found a way to effect change in her community and the world at large.  She was part of a network of women who “organized study groups, opened ‘Freedom Forum’ bookstores, fill the rolls of the John Birch Society, entered school board races, and worked within the Republican Party, all in an urgent struggle to safeguard their particular vision of freedom and the American heritage.”[4]  And while I would not compare the integrity of the works of Estrid Kielsmeier to Ella Baker, both women worked hard for what they believed in.  “Baker was part of a powerful, yet invisible network of dynamic and influential African American women activists who sustained civil rights causes, and one another, across several generations.”[5]  And even though Baker’s primary frame of reference was the African American experience and the struggle for black freedom, she dedicated herself to making the entire world a better place for everyone.

[1] Lisa McGirr, Suburban Warriors: The Origins of the New American Right (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2001), 140-141.

[2] Ibid., 186.

[3] Ibid., 8.

[4] Ibid., 4.

[5] Barbara Ransby, Ella Baker and the Black Freedom Movement: A Radical Democratic Vision (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2003), 4.

Posted in 20th century America, African Americans, Civil Rights, gender studies, marginalization, racism, resistance, urban studies, violence

Ella Baker and the Black Freedom Movement: A Radical Democratic Vision

Ransby, Barbara. Ella Baker and the Black Freedom Movement: A Radical Democratic Vision. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2003.

Barbara Ransby outlines the focus of her biography, Ella Baker and the Black Freedom Movement as follows:

Ella Baker played a pivotal role in the three most prominent black freedom organizations of her day: the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP); the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC); and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC; pronounced “snick”). She worked alongside some of the most prominent black male leaders of the twentieth century: W. E. B. Du Bois, Thurgood Marshall, George Schuyler, Walter White, A. Philip Randolph, Martin Luther King Jr., and Stokely Carmichael. However, Baker had contentious relationships with all these men and the organizations they headed, with the exception of SNCC during its first six years. For much of her career she functioned as an “outsider within.”

Yet, Baker did not work as a sole female activist, nor were her struggles confined to African American communities. “Baker was part of a powerful, yet invisible network of dynamic and influential African American women activists who sustained civil rights causes, and one another, across several generations.” And even though Baker’s primary frame of reference was the African American experience and the struggle for black freedom, she dedicated herself to making the entire world a better place for everyone. Ransby points out that Baker was involved in more than thirty major political campaigns and organizations, “addressing such issues as the war in Vietnam, Puerto Rican independence, South African apartheid, political repression, prison conditions, poverty, unequal education, and sexism.”

Ransby attempts to sum up Baker’s life and work at the end of the book. She notes Timothy Jenkin’s eulogy at a SNCC reunion in 2000 where he describes Baker as being the “mortar between the bricks.” But Ransby disagrees. She likens Baker to a patchwork quilt, noting that “like the quilting tradition itself, [Baker’s] life work was collective work.”
Ransby, who is also an activist, admits that she came upon Ella Baker’s story in her search for “political role models, not research subjects.” But Ransby refers to Baker as a “biographer’s nightmare.” Being a very private person, Baker left little personal correspondence that Ransby could assess. Her public voice and presence as documented in over thirty archival and manuscript collections of organizations and individuals across the country is what remains. Ransby incorporated numerous oral interviews into her research and even conducted a number of the interviews herself. In addition, Ransby consulted published books, theses and dissertations, newspapers, and a variety of other sources.

Ella Baker and the Black Freedom Movement connects with the themes of gender and racism explored in other books on this site. Baker defied gender restrictions of her time, not unlike Dorothea Lange. Both books address how these women fought for those less fortunate than themselves and how they changed as women and human beings as a result of their struggles.

Posted in gender studies, immigrants, law, marginalization, sexuality

The Straight State: Sexuality and Citizenship in Twentieth-Century America

Canaday, Margot. The Straight State: Sexuality and Citizenship in Twentieth-Century America. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2009.

Margot Canaday is a legal and political historian at Princeton University whose teaching interests include gender and women’s history, the history of sexuality, and American political and legal history.  Her first book, The Straight State: Sexuality and Citizenship in Twentieth-Century America, won seven major awards from a diverse group of organizations, including the Organization of American Historians, the American Political Science Association, the Association of American Law Schools and the Lambda Literary Foundation.  The central argument of the book is that “homosexual identity and modern citizenship crystalized…in tandem with the rise of the federal bureaucracy.”[1] Canaday argues that both identities (citizen and homosexual) are not only configured through state bureaucracy, but that both identities have been formed against one another.

Canaday examines three key areas of government control (immigration, the military, and welfare) to demonstrate how federal enforcement of sexual norms developed simultaneously with the rise of American federal bureaucracy.  Two chapters are dedicated to each of these three arenas, providing a comprehensive analysis of the denial of citizenship to gay people through immigration, military, and welfare policies.[2]  These policies “established individuals who exhibited gender inversion or engaged in homoerotic behaviour as either outside of or degraded within citizenship.”[3]

The Bureau of Immigration, which was established in 1895, was one of the earliest federal agencies concerned with homosexuality, according to Canaday.[4]  Immigration officials “lumped together aliens who exhibited gender inversion, had anatomical defects, or engaged in sodomy as degenerates.  Degeneracy was a racial and economic construct that explained the ‘immorality of the poor.”[5]  This identification was used to deny or deport poor people, single women (no husband or provider), and people of color, who were believed to be “primitive” and therefore “especially inclined toward perversion.”[6]

Canaday researched a wide variety of primary government sources, including court case testimony and official correspondences, immigration records, Veterans Administration records, and Congressional records.  Secondary resources included medical journal articles and books.

The arguments in this book most closely relate to arguments presented in Impossible Subjects.   Ngai shows how immigration laws were used as a tool for exclusion through the development of the new status of “illegal alien” and how these laws produced racialized identities.  Canaday shows how immigration, military, and welfare policies co-produced identities of homosexual and citizen.  But Ngai does not include an analysis of gender in her discussion, whereas gender is central to Canaday’s argument.

[1] Margot Canaday, The Straight State: Sexuality and Citizenship in Twentieth-Century America (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2009), 255.

[2] Ibid., 13.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid., 20n.3.

[5] Ibid., 22.

[6] Ibid., 29.

Posted in 17th century America, 18th century America, 19th century America, assimilation, Christianity, class, gender studies, historiography, immigrants, labor, marginalization, material culture, migrants, religion, urban studies

Foul Bodies: Cleanliness in Early America

Brown, Kathleen M. Foul Bodies: Cleanliness in Early America. New Haven; London: Yale University Press, 2009.

In Foul Bodies, Kathleen Brown uses social and cultural history methods to reimagine five hundred years of history as a history of civilizing the body. Challenging notions that “significant historical change takes place mainly in public areas,” Brown contends that “[d]omestic life—always in dynamic relationship with public culture—is also a site of cultural production that undergoes profound historical transformation.”[1] She examines “the relationship between household practices” of cleaning bodies and “public expectations for a civilized body,” through evolving views about cleanliness, privacy, and health.[2] Her work shows that “national standards of private cleanliness reveal much about its ideals of civilization, fears of disease, and expectations for public life.”[3] Brown’s research certainly was inspired by Mary Douglas’ Purity and Danger, which identified attitudes towards purity and pollution at the heart of every society. Whereas, Douglas’ work focused on ritual, religion, and lived experience, Brown asks important new questions related to pollution and the body, expanding the research into the realms of health, gender, class, and race relations.

Brown’s research in Foul Bodies has been cited in numerous recent works. Google Scholar identified over sixty publications. Some of the results were duplicates. Some were erroneous. Of the remaining fifty works, six are dissertations or theses, eighteen are journal articles, and the rest books. At least one book, Gretchen Long’s Doctoring Freedom: The Politics of African American Medical Care in Slavery and Emancipation, lists Foul Bodies in its bibliography, but does not directly cite any content. Notably, over half of the authors are women (or have names generally attributed to females). Several publications will be discussed in the upcoming paragraphs. A more complete list of works can be found in the bibliography.

Holly Dugan, in The Ephemeral History of Perfume: Scent and Sense in Early Modern England, referred to Brown’s “linen-centered” models of cleanliness to support her argument that body odors were a reflection of one’s social position.[4] Sophie White, in Wild Frenchmen and Frenchified Indians: Material Culture and Race in Colonial Louisiana, discussed archaeological finds of household goods from colonial sites in the Illinois Country. She explained that “households included embroidered linen napkins and tablecloths that either someone in the household or a paid village washerwoman would have maintained using skilled and labor-intensive European laundering and ironing techniques.”[5] The attached footnote refers readers to Brown’s concept of “body work” in Part III of Foul Bodies without further explanation.

In Everyday Life in the Early English Caribbean: Irish, Africans, and the Construction of Difference, Jenny Shaw explores the construction of difference through the everyday life of colonial subjects in the second half of the seventeenth century. In Chapter 1, Shaw discussed English disapproval of Irish clothing choices, which were interpreted as the “Irish preference for comfort over prestige.” Her focus in this section of the book was on a piece of clothing called a mantle: “Perhaps the real English concern with the mantle was related to its ability to conceal the sexual misconduct of Irish women, thus enabling the garment to become an easily recognized symbol of the general degeneracy of the Irish population.”[6] Shaw cited Brown’s exploration of “the language of cleanliness with regard to Moryson’s assessment of Irish barbarism.”[7] In Chapter 6, Shaw returned to the same section of Brown’s work in order to offer further support for her examples of people using poor Irish women as servants in the Caribbean to in order to demonstrate a privileged position. Shaw referred readers to Foul Bodies to learn more about the kinds of labor involved in starching and washing.[8] As Brown notes, many social factors contributed to how these tasks and who performed them are understood. “The laundress’ ability to be a mobile, independent, wage earner tarnished her reputation for chastity. . . At the end of the sixteen century, laundress and nurse were terms rife with sexual innuendo, and connoted whore and bawd.”[9]

In Nature’s Civil War: Common Soldiers and the Environment in 1862 Virginia, Kathryn Meier explores how soldiers survived the conditions of war through forming universal self-care habits, including boiling water, eradicating insects, and supplementing their diets with fruits and vegetables. “In order to improve their health, soldiers periodically had to adjust their ideas of manliness, class values, and race to the circumstances at hand.”[10] Meier referenced Brown’s work along with research from environmental historians who have investigated nineteenth century bodies.

In Chapter 1, Meier covers the topic of American healthcare before 1862. She explains how wealthy Southerners would travel to cooler climates to recover from illness and cited Brown’s related discussion about families traveling with ill loved ones.[11] Later in the same chapter, Meier turns to more personal aspects of recovery. She revealed class differences in her discussion about Americans having little contact with doctors, with the exception of wealthy families, who could travel for medical advice. In addition, Meier mentioned that family members, most often mothers, sisters, and wives, provided care in the home, citing Brown’s research.[12]

Common people during this era were encouraged to participate in their own health care. Many households owned domestic medicine manuals. Meier cited Brown as when she wrote, “Women often proved the dispensers of such knowledge, sometimes authoring or compiling their own recipe books of remedies.”[13] Finally, in this chapter, Meier discussed the social reform movement that advocated the belief that “water, diet, and exercise could prevent and cure most sickness,” citing multiple passages from Foul Bodies.[14]

Although this essay has delved into only a few examples of current scholarly use of Brown’s work, we can see a broad spectrum of academic research incorporating Foul Bodies.  One was just a simple reference within a history of scents. Next we saw an attempt to reconstruct a model of colonial life through understanding what “labor-intensive European laundering and ironing techniques” entail. Shaw’s book focused more on the social and cultural aspects that Brown’s research on laundering revealed, helping readers understand how difference is constructed. And Meier, citing multiple aspects of Brown’s research on health, introduced readers to pre-Civil War attitudes and habits of medicine.

[1] Kathleen M. Brown, Foul Bodies: Cleanliness in Early America (New Haven; London: Yale University Press, 2009), 4.

[2] Ibid., 3.

[3] Publication’s promotional abstract.

[4] Brown, 41; Holly Dugan, The Ephemeral History of Perfume: Scent and Sense in Early Modern England (JHU Press, 2011), 107fn39.

[5] Sophie White, Wild Frenchmen and Frenchified Indians: Material Culture and Race in Colonial Louisiana (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2013), 45.

[6] Jenny Shaw, Everyday Life in the Early English Caribbean: Irish, Africans, and the Construction of Difference (University of Georgia Press, 2013), 27.

[7] Brown, 32; Shaw, 28.

[8] Brown, 31-32; Shaw, 167.

[9] Brown, 31.

[10] Kathryn Shively Meier, Nature’s Civil War: Common Soldiers and the Environment in 1862 Virginia (UNC Press Books, 2013). Book’s promotional abstract.

[11] Brown, 303; Meier, 18fn12.

[12] Brown, 303, 230–31; Meier, 22fn24.

[13] Brown, 213–14; Meier, 22fn29.

[14] Brown, 290–93, 308, 16; Meier, 31fn67.

Posted in African Americans, film, gender studies, imperialism, masculinity, material culture, myths, propaganda, racism, violence

Manliness and Civilization: A Cultural History of Gender and Race in the United States, 1880-1917

Bederman, Gail. Manliness and Civilization: A Cultural History of Gender and Race in the United States, 1880-1917. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995.

Prior to the 1990s, most literature on American whiteness and its relationship to masculinity emerged out of the historiography of labor and the working class.[1] Gail Bederman helped to shift this emphasis by her work which explored the political and cultural implications of whiteness, manliness, and civilization.[2] Bederman is considered to be one of the “first generation” of gender historians to study masculinity in the United States. Her 1995 seminal work, Manliness & Civilization, investigates connections between manhood, race, and power, which she identifies as the defining attributes of the “discourse of civilization,” during the Progressive Era.[3]  Her study is based on the premise that gender is an ongoing “historical, ideological process.”[4]  Bederman insisted, in a 2011 article entitled “Why Study ‘Masculinity,’ Anyway? Perspectives from the Old Days,” that “masculinity,” as scholars use the term, is a heuristic category and is most useful when recognized as such.[5] But, she confessed that she had not worked on masculinity studies since 1995 and felt like “Rip Van Winkle, awakening from his twenty-year nap.” She noted huge changes in the field of gender studies since she stepped away and admitted that she did not understand what members of this generation of masculinity scholars really want to know, or why.[6]

Manliness & Civilization opens with an exemplary model for Bederman’s argument: the world heavyweight boxing championship in 1910 between Jack Johnson, the first African American to hold the title, and Jim Jeffries, who was marketed as the “Hope of the White Race.” From the beginning, the Johnson-Jeffries fight was framed as a contest that would prove racial and masculine superiority.[7] After “Johnson trounced Jeffries,” interracial violence and riots broke out across the United States and government officials colluded to imprison Johnson. His victory was perceived as an affront to the power of white masculinity.[8] Bederman concludes that Johnson’s triumph “implicitly challenged the ways hegemonic discourses of civilization built powerful manhood out of race.”[9]

To build her main arguments in Manliness & Civilization, Bederman analyzes key experiences in the lives and work of four prominent and diverse American figures, Ida B. Wells (anti-lynching activist), G. Stanley Hall (psychologist), Charlotte Perkins Gilman (feminist), and President Theodore Roosevelt, who each worked to shape the meaning of manliness using their own conceptions of “civilization.” She shows how their work challenged or upheld notions that “civilization” is predicated on white masculinity. In her conclusion, Bederman analyzes the original 1912 rendition of the character Tarzan to show how the previous four examples combine into an image of perfect manhood that is both civilized, signaled by his descent from noble English aristocracy, and primitive, marked by his childhood among the apes and his drive to rape and kill.[10]

For Bederman, Tarzan is Teddy Roosevelt’s great white hunter who conquered racial inferiors and even nature itself.[11] Tarzan, who lynches Africans, is more savage than Wells’ lyncher because he enjoys killing as a sport (much like Roosevelt enjoyed killing animals). Kill or be killed is the law of the jungle.[12] He is Gilman’s “brute” who progresses from potential rapist to a chivalrous and civilized man due to his genetic superiority.[13] Tarzan is also Hall’s savage little boy who is allowed “racial recapitulation” to emerge as the most powerful civilized man.[14] Bederman admits that Burroughs most likely was not directly influenced by the works of any of these four individuals; however, the alignment of these “discourses of civilization” illuminates the pervasiveness of the “cultural project to remake manhood” during the Progressive Era.[15]

Before wrapping up discussion on Bederman’s work, I must digress to consider a couple of modern cinematic remakes of the Tarzan story. Hundreds of films, radio and television shows, stage plays, and video games have featured Tarzan. Most adaptations have continued to propagate the paternalism and racism found in the original.[16] Walt Disney employees decided to completely remove all African natives from its 1999 children’s animated Tarzan, a move that helped them to avoid any hint of racism found in the original stories.[17] Although, it makes one question the underlying message for a diverse global society. Yet, in an even more surprising move (at least for me now that I know the original storyline), the film’s villain, a white hunter by the name of Clayton (Tarzan’s family name), dies in an accidental hanging (lynching?) that viewers witness through the shadows. And in 2016, a new film, The Legend of Tarzan was released.

In this most recent reimagining of Tarzan, the storyline begins in England, where Tarzan and Jane are happily married and living as Lord and Lady Greystoke. The action takes place in the 1880s during the colonization of the Congo by King Leopold of Belgium. African American diplomat George Washington Williams, whose character is based on a real American Civil War soldier, Christian minister, politician, lawyer, journalist, and historian, enlists Greystoke/Tarzan’s help to thwart King Leopold’s plans to enslave the Congo. Although the filmmaker attempted to upgrade the story for twenty-first century sensibilities, there are foundational problems inherent to the Tarzan storyline. As Richard Brody points out in his New Yorker review of the film, “There are inescapable underlying racist horrors built into the very notion of Tarzan—the idea that, as a white man raised by apes, he’s the white-skinned equivalent of black Africans, their equal as a force of nature but with the natural aptitude to be rapidly civilized, and that, as a white man, he is Jane’s one acceptable African mate.”[18] If we understand films to be a way to gauge how we see the world and how our world is reified, these examples illustrate that gender and race are indeed ongoing historical, ideological processes that we need to question.

Looking today at the continued influence of Bederman’s work, Google Scholar returned 2,189 results for Manliness & Civilization. Searching within these results, 83 results related to publications in 2016, which indicates that the work continues to have relevance. However, I found that numerous works that cited Manliness & Civilization over the years did so only in passing. By citing a page or two from the work, these publications seem to acknowledge the importance of Bederman’s contributions, but few seemed to actively engaged with any of her arguments. This may indicate that scholars of gender and/or race studies are at least expected to be familiar with this work. Some of these titles include Racial Formation in the United States: From the 1960s to the 1990s (2014) by Michael Omi and Howard Winant, How Jews Became White Folks and What That Says About Race in America (1998) by Karen Brodkin, and Jazz, Rock, and Rebels: Cold War Politics and American Culture in a Divided Germany (2000) by Uta G Poiger, each of which were cited by hundreds of additional publications.

“So where does that leave us in the twenty-first century?” Bederman asks.[19] She does not offer an answer; however, one point she makes is clear. There is nothing self-evident about what it means to study “masculinity.” The term is a heuristic category that allows us to ask certain kinds of questions and is useful only when scholars clearly define what they want to know and what they mean when they use the term.[20]

[1] Tanfer Emin Tunc, “Recapitulating the Historiographical Contributions of Matthew Frye Jacobson’s Whiteness of a Different Color and Gail Bederman’s Manliness and Civilization,” Rethinking History 12, no. 2 (2008): 281. The author of this article suggests that Jacobson’s and Bederman’s contributions should be looked at together in order to better understand their contributions to the field.

[2] Ibid., 282.

[3] Gail Bederman, Manliness & Civilization: A Cultural History of Gender and Race in the United States, 1880-1917 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995), 4-5. She posits that as “middle-class men actively worked to reinforce male power, their race became a factor which was crucial to their gender…whiteness was both a palpable fact and a manly ideal for these men.” In addition, Bederman’s use of the term “discourse” was influenced by the work of Michel Foucault. By simultaneously looking at the intellectual constructs and material practices of a society, this methodology helps historians understand ways in which a society defines itself and how that society deploys social power. Ibid., 24.

[4] Ibid., 7. Emphasis in original.

[5] Gail Bederman, “Why Study ‘Masculinity,’ Anyway? Perspectives from the Old Days,” Culture, Society and Masculinities 3, no. 1 (Spring, 2011): 14. The paper is based on a keynote address given at the conference “Performing the Invisible: Masculinities in the English-Speaking World,” Université Sorbonne Nouvelle-Paris 3, September 25-26, 2010.

[6] Ibid., 13.

[7] Bederman, Manliness & Civilization: A Cultural History of Gender and Race in the United States, 1880-1917, 2.

[8] Ibid., 41.

[9] Ibid., 42. This example provoked me to think about Jesse Owen’s win at the 1936 Olympics. Many American history and sports sites publicize how Owens, who was the son of a sharecropper and the grandson of slaves, had single-handedly crushed Hitler’s myth of Aryan supremacy. Yet, we don’t often hear about how Americans treated Jack Johnson.

[10] Ibid., 218, 21.

[11] Ibid., 220-21. “Tarzan’s cultural work was to proclaim that ‘the white man’s’ potential for power and mastery was as limitless as the masculine perfection of Tarzan’s body.”

[12] Ibid., 225.

[13] Ibid., 229-31.

[14] Ibid., 222. “…civilized man could be powerful if, as a child, he repeated the primitive life of his savage ancestors.” Hall believed that children grew up literally repeating the psychological experiences of their primitive adult ancestors. Ibid., 94.

[15] Ibid., 232.

[16] Rebecca Keegan, “Can You Make a Non-Racist Tarzan Movie?,” The Los Angeles Times  (July 1, 2016), accessed October 19, 2016,

[17] Ibid.; J. Weeks, “Reprints of `Tarzan’ Books Soften Racism,” Florida Times Union  (1999), accessed October 19, 2016,

[18] Richard Brody, “Tarzan Cannot Be Rebooted,” The New Yorker  (June 30, 2016), accessed October 19, 2016,

[19] Bederman, “Why Study ‘Masculinity,’ Anyway? Perspectives from the Old Days,” 24.

[20] Ibid., 16.

Posted in 17th century America, African Americans, gender studies, marginalization, material culture, Native Americans, racism, religion, resistance, slavery, violence

The Saltwater Frontier: Indians and the Contest for the American Coast

Lipman, Andrew. The Saltwater Frontier: Indians and the Contest for the American Coast. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2015.

Merrell, James H. “Second Thoughts on Colonial Historians and American Indians.” The William and Mary Quarterly. 69, no. 3 (2012): 451-512.


James Merrell presents evidence in his article “Second Thoughts on Colonial Historians and American Indians” that shows how many historians continue to propagate a flawed lexicon that impedes understanding of early American history. He points out that “early Americanists are still shackled to a lexicon crafted by the victors in the contest for America, one fashioned to explain, even justify, how things turned out (Merrell 2012, 458).  Merrell urges historians to find new ways to explore this history. Andrew Lipman’s book, The Saltwater Frontier, has been lauded for its new and insightful narrative that refocuses American Indian history away from the land towards the sea. Lipman’s intention was to do just that as evidenced by remarks in his introduction, “By looking towards the sea rather than the land, this book offers a new way of thinking about Indian history and a new way of understanding this all-too familiar region” (Lipman 2015, 4). In order to evaluate this claim, I contemplated what a new way of talking about early America might look like. I also considered places where Lipman succeeded and where he missed the mark.

Lipman asserts that “viewing saltwater as the primary stage of cultural encounters changes our simple narratives of colonization” (7). He acquaints readers with several simplified stories in the book’s introduction and discusses ways that many historians already have successfully challenged pervasive myths of the Great Frontier (8-13). Lipton’s work is built upon the work of other historians, so in many ways, Saltwater Frontier is a continuation rather than a new way of thinking about the frontier. In a particularly telling example, Lipman credits Olivia Bush-Banks and her poem “Driftwood” (1916) as his inspiration for reimagining America’s embattled territory as a sea story: “Her verses articulated the idea that the ocean was a frontier” (12). Poetry and metaphor are extraordinary tools for rupturing closed systems of thought. Unfortunately, most of Lipman’s prose remains within the limits of traditional historical writing, even though he has reimagined contested territory to include the ocean. In order to devise a truly new way of talking about early American history, Lipman could have infused his historical writing with meaningful creative insights such as his “Driftwood” example. Instead, his work is bounded within the academic norms of his genre.

Saltwater Frontier is “primarily about how three things—seafaring, violence, and Atlantic geopolitics—shaped one place” (14). All three of these topics are endemic to a male worldview. Lipman offers an extensive reading list for those interested in learning more about this time period through the lens of gender, slavery, religion, etc. Indeed, authors must select which information to include and leave out in order to create a coherent narrative; however, some of the particular choices Lipman made relegated his narrative to sit within the hegemonic ranks. Why show preferential treatment for the male propensity for conquest and domination? Of course, writing a book about “Indians and the Contest for the American Coast” would be near impossible without such a focus. So the question becomes, if Lipman wanted to meet Merrell’s challenge to talk about early American history in a new way, why did he choose to write a book that remains rooted in a dominant perspective? The answer to this question may be tied to another of Merrell’s insights.

Merrell referred to something that he called “cartographic mind games.” In essence, maps are tools of the elite that help to control how people view the world. Quoting Gregory H. Nobles and others, Merrell asserts that maps “often represented the world not as it really was but as the mapmaker (or, more to the point, the mapmaker’s sponsor) wanted it to be. Thus maps became important instruments of imperial policy” (Merrell 2012, 483). Maps and language are tools used to represent reality. Most academics are severely restricted within the confines of their professional fields (especially newly minted academics, such as Lipman). I would not go so far as to assert that historians at the top of the field and academic publishers intentionally manipulate the field. Nevertheless, they are the driving force as well as a part of the academic history apparatus. Academics have been trained to think and speak about the world in particular ways and are censured or rewarded accordingly. Perhaps, someday, Lipman will return to his “Driftwood” inspiration and find new ways to explore the territory.